“Self-fulfilling prophecy” was the refrain heard throughout a panel discussion titled “Breaking Down the Barrier: A Conversation About Women in Country Music,” held at Nashville’s Cambria Hotel on Tuesday to address the shockingly low levels of representation in a genre that once seemed far more female-friendly.
Moderated by Variety features editor Chris Willman and hosted in partnership with CMT ahead of the network’s all-female “CMT Artists of the Year” telecast on Oct. 17, the panel assembled to discuss issues female artists face in the current landscape included five of the most influential women in country music: CMT’s senior VP of music strategy, Leslie Fram, who also hosted the event; Creative Nation co-founder Beth Laird; Callie Cunningham of Red Light Management; Stephanie Wright, VP of A&R at Universal Music Group Nashville; and songwriter Nicolle Galyon.
Galyon, who’s written hits for the likes of Miranda Lambert, Kenny Chesney and Camilla Cabello, revealed that country radio’s pushback on female artists really sank in when iHeartRadio host Bobby Bones flatly declared that the reason Raelynn’s “Love Triangle,” a song that received praise throughout the industry, stalled on the charts was due to the fact that it’s sung by a woman. “The big argument that everyone keeps hearing from radio is ‘Just give us great songs,’ and I think that was very defeating for me to hear that it wasn’t about the song, it was really about who was singing it,” Galyon said. “That was a big light bulb for me, of ‘We’re up against something here.'”
Wright cited Kacey Musgraves as an artist who’s forged her own successful path without the recent help of country radio, while Fram noted that Miranda Lambert, an act who’s also received critical acclaim and multiple awards, “still doesn’t get a pass at radio.” Added Wright: “Great music is what everyone’s saying that they just have to have, and that’s not always a surefire way of getting a female voice out there and heard.”
An argument made by at least some country radio consultants, if not as often programmers, is that female listeners have a natural predilection to want to hear a diet of mostly men, a theory the panelists rejected. Wright reported that in some cases, female artists receive fewer spins during the day and more at night when listenership is lower. “It’s impossible to even say that these songs are researching because a big part of the research is familiarity, and if they’re not getting any exposure, then there’s no familiarity,” Cunningham explained. “So they’re not even getting a shot at getting accurate research in order to understand what people are responding to.”
Said Laird: “If everybody keeps saying ‘Females don’t want to hear females,’ there’s no research behind that, but I think people start thinking that maybe that’s true or they state it as fact. If a lot of songs all sound the same, if you drop in a really unique outside-the-box female vocal, it is going to sound out of place. Whereas if every third song you heard was an interesting female perspective, then that is what you would be used to and more accustomed to hearing.”
Fram made sure to mention that all of the artists being honored at the CMT Artists of the Year event have shared how the women that came before them influenced their careers. They also espouse that women’s voices are a vital part of the genre. “We’re actually at a crucial time in the format where we’re about to really hurt a lot of these artists in this whole decade of not having female voices, and the self-fulfilling prophecy part of it is this cycle,” said Fram of the ripple effect that can impact a female artist’s ability to tour or land a publishing deal. “It’s this vicious cycle that we have to get ourselves out of and I think that’s why we’re all having this conversation today to see what those solutions could be.”
Rising artist Carly Pearce closed out the event with a trio of performances of “Doin’ it Right,” her current single “Hide the Wine” and first No. 1 hit “Every Little Thing.”
CMT’s Artists of the Year special features a just-announced tribute to Loretta Lynn, in addition to honorees Carrie Underwood, Maren Morris, Miranda Lambert, Kelsea Ballerini, Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott and Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman. Among previously announced performances, Morris will be joined by Brandi Carlile for a tribute to Aretha Franklin, Ballerini will team up with Gladys Knight and Scott will go gospel with Kirk Franklin and Tori Kelly.